During testimony in September, two informants taking part in a high-profile international-drug-smuggling case admitted to lying to US officials, which could affect the outcome of the trial against two nephews of the wife of the Venezuelan president.
The informants, a father-son pair, admitted in court that they had lied to US narcotics investigators in order to smuggle drugs themselves while they worked with the US to investigate Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro.
Flores and Campo have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to smuggle nearly 1,800 pounds of cocaine to the US.
According to testimony from a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent, a major drug-trafficking informant in Honduras reported to US authorities in October 2015 that a Venezuelan official believed to be related to the country’s first lady was going to send his nephew to Honduras to meet with drug traffickers working as US informants.
According to testimony and court documents, the nephews met with the father-son pair, who were posing as Mexican traffickers, in Venezuela to plan the alleged smuggling scheme.
The 55-year-old father and 34-year-old son have worked as undercover informants for law-enforcement agencies in the US and in South America for years, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But recently the duo began lying to US Drug Enforcement Administration officials in order to smuggle drugs themselves, they admitted to US authorities. They are both now in jail after pleading guilty to related charges.
“You’d been lying to them for years?” John Zach, a lawyer for Campo Flores, asked CS-2, the designation given to the younger informant. "Yes I did lie to them,“ he replied.
The father also admitted to abusing cocaine and for deceiving US officials and selling drugs for four years. He testified that prosecutors became upset with him when he admitted to visiting prostitutes twice during a trip to Caracas to meet the accused nephews, rather than just once, as he had previously said. He also said for the first time that he had allowed a friend of his son to be present during one of the meetings with Flores and Campo.
Suspicions about the conduct of the informants in this case have arisen at the same time as the DEA has been criticized for potential ”fraud, waste, and abuse“ in its conduct with confidential sources over the last few years.
Sources like the father-son duo inherently raise issues in some prosecutions, given their typical activities.
"A lot of them come from a criminal background,” Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider.
“And we in the government use them to get in-depth information that we would not normally get, and as a result of that a lot of times they come under attack by defense attorneys.”
To bolster cases relying on confidential or undercover informants, investigators will try to independently confirm the details such sources pass along, Vigil said.
“In the case of the nephews, yeah, a couple of the informants have questionable backgrounds,” Vigil, who worked undercover in Colombia, added. “But they provided information, and who was the biggest corroborator of that information? It was the nephews, in terms of statements they made when they were arrested in Port au Prince and then being transported to the United States, and then during undercover negotiations.”
These statements and confessions the nephews signed after their arrest have come into question, however, and the defense has made an effort to suppress them, arguing that the nephews thought their arrest was a kidnapping and that they were not made fully aware of their rights while they were being questioned in the hours after they were detained. The two were “coerced” into making the statements, according to the defense.
The misconduct of the informants, coupled with questions raised by the defense about how those purportedly voluntary confessions were acquired, have put the stability of the case in doubt.
“If I were [US prosecutors], I would be nervous,” David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the narcotics division at the US Attorney’s Office in Miami, told McClatchy in late September. “The way things are going, the case is not getting better. It’s getting weaker.“
"The issue is that these individuals are not choir boys,” Vigil said, referring to the pair of informants. “A lot of times, when [such informants are] off on their own, they do things that are criminal, without question. Not all of them, but some of them … But it’s impossible for us to monitor them 24/7.”
Details that emerged during the testimony has also led to questions about the scope of the case US prosecutors are seeking to make against the nephews. The DEA agent testified that the two nephews said they would have the run of the Caracas airport and the ability to move drug cargos through it.
But, as Insight Crime notes, the involvement of Venezuelan official who first contacted the DEA informant suggests that the two nephews may not have been the masterminds and that they could be being used as cover for a larger group of traffickers operating out of Venezuela. The US has previously indicted high-level military officials on drug-trafficking charges.
The case, which is slated to go to trial on November 7, likely hinges on whether the judge allows the defendants’ statements and audio and video of their meetings with the informants to be entered into evidence.
“If those declarations are not thrown out,” Vigil said, “I’m of the opinion, 100%, that they’ll be convicted.”